A few people have asked about the possibility of using a tent in an open rowboat such as the Oxford Wherry. The idea of using your boat for shelter as well as transportation can be appealing. This is a subject I am well versed in, having lived for months at a time in row boats with either tents or small cuddies for shelter, on voyages ranging from rowing the length of the Amazon River to rowing across the Atlantic Ocean. On our more recent seven-month expedition, rowing from Scotland to Syria, we had a system of catamaraning our two Expedition Rowboats and setting up a tent between them. Both systems have pros and cons, but overall, a permanent cabin or cuddy is preferable if you plan on doing any serious boat camping.
One of the biggest misconceptions with boat tents is that it is easier and simpler to fabricate a cloth shelter for a boat than to construct a permanent cabin. The reality is tent making is an extremely complex task, and the work of making a good-looking and strong tent is often greater than the work of building an entire boat. Also, tents generally don’t cover the complete boat, meaning in a downpour the boat will still start to fill with water. Substantial floor boards are then required to keep the occupant above the water, adding further weight to the vessel. Additionally, most boat tent designs require coming ashore to setup, creating more work at a time when you’d probably prefer watching the setting sun with a glass of wine. Perhaps, the biggest downside to a tent is their performance in windy conditions. The water is a volatile environment, and a calm evening can quickly transform to strong winds and choppy waves. Even the best tents will become flapping nightmares in a stiff blow, creating drama and discomfort that we could all do without.
I’ve listed a lot of cons for boat tenting, however, I still think there is a place for it. It is the simplicity of camping in a boat that makes it so appealing, so staying true to this spirit will make it a positive experience. Instead of spending months cutting and sewing a custom tent, why not just bring along a small piece of plastic or tarp and some ropes. A few pieces of driftwood will assist in making an adequate shelter, and you can camp on the beach or be anchored out. If the wind starts rising, you can quickly pull the plastic off and row ashore. Alternatively, off-the-shelf tents can sometimes be coaxed to conform to a boat's dimensions, however, in most situations, it would be simpler and more secure setting the tent up on the shore.
On the other hand if you want to camp regularly in your boat, and require a system that is simple, 100% durable and weather tight and no work to set up, you’re probably better off using a boat like our RowCruiser Rowboat which has the cabin built in. Not only does the cabin provide dry secure shelter for the occupant in winds up to hurricane force, but it is also a large dry compartment to store your gear. Even more importantly, it provides significant reserve buoyancy enhancing seaworthiness when underway, beneficial for coastal and open water rowing. There are few drawbacks to a system like this apart from a slight bit of added weight and windage.
Part of the motivation behind our efforts to design the sailing version of the RowCruiser came from the Race to Alaska (R2AK). As competitors in the race, we wanted something that was fast by oar and sail and could be raced non-stop for more than one week by two people.